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We need an honest dialogue about Islamic fundamentalism

I want to begin an honest dialogue with Islam. And I want to include those who are not followers of Islam who defend it in its excessive offense-taking in the name of respect for all religions. This includes people like the head of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who has given tacit support to Sharia law in England — law that, in even it most benign form, does not generally grant equal rights to women. It includes those who, while not calling for the death of the publishers of material critical of Islam, still agreed that limits should be put on their ability publish such things.

The reason for this dialogue is that I want certain interpretations of Islam to join the modern world. In the modern world, homosexuality is not punishable by death, and is not illegal (unfortunately, we in the west still have some work to do in this area). Adulterers are not buried up to their shoulder and stoned to death. Apostates and blasphemers are not punished in any way, much less by being put to death. Women have equal right to socialize, to work, to own property, to choose their husband. There will forever be things about all religions that I find distasteful. But on issues such as these, there is no room for concession.

I was raised by compassionate Catholic parents who taught me to respect all people and their differences. My liberal arts education furthered that, teaching me the values of multiculturalism and of respect for all cultures. These are certainly very noble values. I had long been the kind of liberal who fell too deep into the belief that cultures are not better or worse, they are merely different — that one has no right to criticize other cultures, as you cannot understand truly understand them as an outsider. I am casting that aside. And at the moment, Islam is my target.

Many interpretations among adherents
I understand that Islam is not monolithic. Like every other religion, Islam has multiple sects, and within those, nearly as many interpretations as there are adherents. Some generalizations made here will likely draw cries of racism and bigotry. Let me be perfectly clear that I fully understand that many Muslims are not sexist, are not homophobic, do not demand that apostates and blasphemers be put to death. At this moment in history however, Islam has more than its share of those.

The inescapable reality is that, as the world’s fastest growing religion by some measures, the problems with Islam are not going away and must be addressed. Islam has earned our scrutiny, by being large and being loud. Liberal, progressive followers of Muhammad must be the loudest voices against the authoritarian and backward excesses committed by the conservatives and fundamentalists.     

I am not so naïve as to expect the eradication of some of religions’ sillier or more dangerous beliefs in my lifetime, whether of the Abrahamic faiths or the rest of the multitude. And taking a hard-line approach to some of Islam’s offensive practices may only garner cries of bigotry and racism, cries that do sometimes bear a stamp of validity.  It may serve to alienate and divide, making modernization and integration even more difficult.

Seeking mutual understanding
These issues will not be solved in the pages of Op-Ed columns. It requires dialogue and mutual understanding. Some of this distaste for Islam is likely rooted in my and others’ modern, western ignorance of Islam and the myriad cultures where it has flourished. I have no qualms about saying that the burqa is wrong, but I would not say the same about the hijab. Somewhere in there is a line. But I will not claim to be able to unwrap centuries of the history of women in Islam in a few paragraphs. 

Many Muslims do not call for the heads of infidels every time a cartoon depicting Muhammad is published.  Who is to say which interpretation is more or less accurate representation of a “true” Islam? And what of those Muslims who aren’t so bloodthirsty as to call for the murder of those “offenders,” but stop short of saying that punishment is unreasonable?

Most major religions’ holy books are chock full of the obscene, the offensive, and the now illegal. Their institutions and their adherents are a welcome part of modern, free society insofar as they abandon those. While Islam is not the only offender of the world’s major religions, its fundamentalists are right now the greatest offender. And for inclusion in modern society, all of Islam must begin to abandon its outdated teachings and laws.

Patrick Phenow is a graduate student in urban and regional planning at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dan Kitzmann on 12/21/2009 - 04:21 pm.

    Superb article. I’ve always been bothered by the apparent reflex of some self-described liberals to be incapable of criticizing outrages simply because conservatives are quick criticize (with stentorian tones) the same behavior in question. (Yes, this goes both ways.)

    It is particularly dispiriting when the primary response to non-Christian extremism and violence is to change the subject and hiss, “Yeah, well let’s talk about the epic horrors of the Crusades or the cruel lunacy of the religious right today! . . .”

  2. Submitted by Goolam Dawood on 12/22/2009 - 08:01 am.

    The presumption here is that Muslims and others have not been having an honest discussion about Islam or fundamentalism. Recent surveys have opened up the true values of Muslims and Islam to the world, yet we must continuously put up with “honest” discussions about issues affecting underdeveloped and impoverished nations that are engaged in confrontations with the American establishment .. confrontations that are no different to confrontations of the disenfranchised “savages” of South America and Africa and other parts of Asia with corporates and military juntas that receive American support.

    I’d like to have an honest discussion with an American. How can you impeach a President who lied about his sex life, but can’t impeach a president or his staff who were responsible for an illegal a trillion dollars war and a global economic recession? The reality is that Americans don’t want to discuss Islamic fundamentalism. Americans need a scapegoat. And yes, while we Muslims have been progressing ourselves with meagre resources and hardly any political goodwill from the western community (can Copenhagen be any more proof of that double standard ~ 1600 protestors arrested and counting), we must still put up with double standards related to Israel, the war on Iraq, support of regimes, the supply of military infrastructure, the African central command, unfair WTO policies .. and now a supposedly Honest discussion about Islam?

    To have an honest discussion, you need honest brokers. Start there and the rest will follow!

  3. Submitted by Phyllis Stenerson on 12/22/2009 - 11:07 am.

    Honest dialogue would include starting with an open-ended question such as “How does religion impact world peace?” (I’m sure someone can come up with a better one but you get the idea). Follow dialogue guidelines, maybe like those modeled by Socrates. Since Minnesota is a megacenter for dialogue on public policy, this is where a truly honest, open discussion might start, knowing it will never be completely over but shifts into a positive trajectory. I hope somebody skilled at doing these things does it.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/23/2009 - 07:18 am.

    I am puzzled by calls for open and honest dialogues to begin; this one and others. Why do we think this not occurring? If we believe it is not occurring, how will we know when it begins? How can we take part?

    I believe that the problem is not with Islamic fundamentalism, but rather with radical Islam. Fundamentalism is the strict adherence to basic principles. If you have a problem with the basic principles, you have a problem with all of Islam.

  5. Submitted by Yoshi Nakamura on 12/23/2009 - 01:58 pm.

    Let’s face it. Honest dialog with Moslems is just not possible. The reason is that a religious Moslem is duty bound to do everything possible to advance the cause of Islam. But, a dialog requires putting all the cards on the table and talking about the differences. The last thing a religious Moslem wants is for non-Moslems to know what is in the Koran and the sayings of Muhammad. Therefore, a religious Moslem will not put these cards on the table. Therefore, no true dialog can take place.

    And, another thing. There are no serious differences of interpretation within Islam about Islam. What we have is the fact that many Moslems simply do not abide by the doctrines of Islam in their daily lives. This is not the same as following a different interpretation. The best that these moderate Moslems can do is to go about their moderate lives in silent disobedience to the doctrines of Islam, but they can never speak out against those doctrines. The reason is that, in order to attack those “radical” doctrines, they would have to criticize the Koran and Muhammad. This they cannot do and will not do. There is no “moderate interpretation” of Islam. Islamic doctrine comes from the Koran, the sayings of Muhammad and from Sharia Law. Those are pretty well fixed. Either a Moslem follow them, or he doesn’t. He cannot provide a different “interpretation.”

  6. Submitted by Yoshi Nakamura on 12/23/2009 - 02:02 pm.

    Steve Rose tries to distinguish “Islamic fundamentalism” from “radical Islam.” The distinction cannot be made because “radical Islam” is merely the practical implementation of the Islamic texts and doctrines which are at the heart of “Islamic fundamentalism”. The problem with Islam lies in the texts of the Koran and the sayings of Muhammad. In Islam, a “fundamentalist” and a “radical” are the same.

  7. Submitted by Stephen Lehman on 12/28/2009 - 12:30 pm.

    The Koran is not the only religious text with righteous calls for the murder of non-believers and moral lawbreakers. Read Deuteronomy 13:6-10 or Leviticus 20:13 or 20:10 or 21:9 or Exodus 21:15 or the scores of other Old Testament captital proscriptions. Many (but not all) fundamentalist Christians believe that New Testament events cancel out the need to follow Old Testament obligations. But Jewish followers of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) are not necessarily so excused, though Torah scholarship, with which I am not very familiar, seems to have mitigated the most serious of these procriptions. Some fundamentalist Chrisitans, such as the murderers of Dr. Tiller and other abortion providers and the Christian dominionist paramilitaries (such as the KKK), do justify their violent acts with scripture. And Romans 1:26-32 in the New Testament, while more passive-agressive than the OT, still says that all who break the moral laws as laid down are “worthy of death.”

    But it is clear that there is a much greater problem with violent fundamentalist radicals in Islam than in Christianity or Judaism at this point in history. The problem is one of extent rather than potential based on scripture, however. Thus I reject Mr. Nakamura’s assumption that Muslims all must follow the most violent and retrograde teachings of the Koran in order to be Muslims. As with Christianity and Judaism there is a wide range of belief and practice in Islam, and the vast majority of Muslims (many of whom could be called fundamentalist, hence Mr. Rose’s distinction) do make the concessions to modern laws and customs that other major religions make and thereby live in peace in the West.

    There can be no question that Sharia will never be practiced in the U.S.; it would be diametric to the Constitution. Muslims who wish to live under some form of Sharia will have to do it elsewhere. Any effort to impose it here must be vigorously opposed on Constitutional grounds.

    Islam isn’t going to go away, so those factions within it least unable to coexist with modernity and most willing to commit criminal acts must be resisted and brought to justice. But moderate Islam must also be supported in its efforts to combat the radical fundamentalism within. One step non-Muslims can take toward such support is to recognize that those efforts are already taking place, and moderate Muslims are not our enemies.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/07/2010 - 08:14 pm.

    I’d like to thank Mr. Lehman for his temperate and well-reasoned response to Mr. Nakamura’s posts. As a non-believer, I’ve paid little attention to the details of others’ faiths in the past 40+ years. What I have learned is consistent with Mr. Lehman’s comments. I suspect that until we can accept the existence of the same degree of diversity in Islamic belief and practice that we see in Christianity and Judaism, any honest dialogue will have to wait.

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